- The Chief Justice of India (CJI) has lauded Goa’s Uniform Civil Code and encouraged “intellectuals” indulging in “academic talk” to visit the state to learn more about it.
What is a Uniform Civil Code?
- A Uniform Civil Code is one that would provide for one law for the entire country, applicable to all religious communities in their personal matters such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, adoption etc.
- Article 44, one of the directive principles of the Constitution lays down that the state shall endeavour to secure a Uniform Civil Code for the citizens throughout the territory of India.
- These, as defined in Article 37, are not justiciable (not enforceable by any court) but the principles laid down therein are fundamental in governance.
Need for a Uniform Civil Code
- Different personal laws promote communalism and it leads to discrimination at two levels:
- First, between people of different religions.
- Second, between the two sexes.
- Uniform Civil Code will provide women with the right to equality and justice in courts of law- irrespective of their religion in matters pertaining to marriage, divorce, maintenance, custody of children, inheritance rights, adoption, etc.
- The Supreme Court for the first time directed the Parliament to frame a UCC in the year 1985 in the case of Mohammad Ahmed Khan v. Shah Bano Begum , popularly known as the Shah Bano case.
- In this case, Shah Bano claimed for maintenance from her husband under Section 125 of the Code of Criminal Procedure after she was given triple talaq by him.
- However, government overturned the Shah Bano case decision by way of Muslim Women (Right to Protection on Divorce) Act, 1986 which curtailed the right of a Muslim woman for maintenance under Section 125 of the Code of criminal Procedure.
- The Supreme Court in Shayara Bano case (2017) had declared the practise of Triple Talaq (talaq-e-bidat) as unconstitutional.
Greater role for State
- Fundamental rights are enforceable in a court of law.
- While Article 44 uses the words “the state shall endeavour”, other Articles in the ‘Directive Principles’ chapter use words such as “in particular strive”; “shall, in particular, direct its policy”; “shall be the obligation of the state” etc.
- Article 43 mentions “state shall endeavour by suitable legislation” while the phrase “by suitable legislation” is absent in Article 44.
- All this implies that the duty of the state is greater in other directive principles than in Article 44.
What are more important — fundamental rights or directive principles?
- There is no doubt that fundamental rights are more important.
- The Supreme Court held in Minerva Mills (1980): Indian Constitution is founded on the bedrock of the balance between Parts III (Fundamental Rights) and IV (Directive Principles).
- To give absolute primacy to one over the other is to disturb the harmony of the Constitution.
- Article 31C inserted by the 42nd Amendment in 1976, however, lays down that if a law is made to implement any directive principle, it cannot be challenged on the ground of being violative of the FRs under Articles 14 and 19.
Does India not already have a uniform code in civil matters?
- Indian laws do follow a uniform code in most civil matters – Indian Contract Act, Civil Procedure Code, Sale of Goods Act, Transfer of Property Act, Partnership Act, Evidence Act etc.
- States, however, have made hundreds of amendments and therefore in certain matters, there is diversity even under these secular civil laws.
- Recently, several states refused to be governed by the uniform Motor Vehicles Act, 2019.
What about personal laws?
- If the framers of the Constitution had intended to have a Uniform Civil Code, they would have given exclusive jurisdiction to Parliament in respect of personal laws, by including this subject in the Union List.
- But “personal laws” are mentioned in the Concurrent List.
- Last year, the Law Commission concluded that a Uniform Civil Code is neither feasible nor desirable.
Various customary laws
- Muslims of Kashmir were governed by a customary law, which in many ways was at variance with Muslim Personal Law in the rest of the country and was, in fact, closer to Hindu law.
- Even on the registration of marriage among Muslims, laws differ from place to place. It was compulsory in J&K (1981 Act), and is optional in Bengal, Bihar (both under 1876 Act), Assam (1935 Act) and Odisha (1949 Act).
- In the Northeast, there are more than 200 tribes with their own varied customary laws.
- The Constitution itself protects local customs in Nagaland. Similar protections are enjoyed by Meghalaya and Mizoram.
- Even reformed Hindu law, in spite of codification, protects customary practices.
How does the idea of a Uniform Civil Code relate to the fundamental right to religion?
- Article 25 lays down an individual’s fundamental right to religion;
- Article 26(b) upholds the right of each religious denomination or any section thereof to “manage its own affairs in matters of religion”;
- Article 29 defines the right to conserve distinctive culture.
- An individual’s freedom of religion under Article 25 is subject to “public order, health, morality” and other provisions relating to FRs, but a group’s freedom under Article 26 has not been subjected to other fundamental rights
- In the Constituent Assembly, there was division on the issue of putting UCC in the fundamental rights chapter. The matter was settled by a vote.
- By a 5:4 majority, the fundamental rights sub-committee headed by Sardar Patel held that the provision was outside the scope of FRs and therefore the UCC was made less important than freedom of religion.
How did the debate on a common code for Hindus play out?
- In June 1948, Rajendra Prasad, President of the Constituent Assembly, warned Nehru that to introduce “basic changes” in personal law was to impose “progressive ideas” of a “microscopic minority” on the Hindu community as a whole.
- Others opposed to reforms in Hindu law included Sardar Patel, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, M A Ayyangar, M M Malaviya and Kailash Nath Katju.
- When the debate on the Hindu Code Bill took place in December 1949, 23 of 28 speakers opposed it.
- On September 15, 1951, President Prasad threatened to use his powers of returning the Bill to Parliament or vetoing it. Ambedkar eventually had to resign.
- Nehru agreed to trifurcation of the Code into separate Acts and diluted several provisions.